Mark Bowman, a regular at the Turning Point Café, run by the Samoan Congregational Christian UCC in Las Vegas, chats with Frank Tito, 6, as volunteer Terry Moenoa looks on. Stephen Andrascik photo.
Thankfully, in Las Vegas, whenever the number of days in the month exceeds the number of dollars in your pocket, there is always a warm meal and a friendly face waiting for you at the Turning Point Café.
As a ministry of the Samoan Congregational Christian UCC, the restaurant provides more than a delicious menu; it offers each customer a loving helping of hope and encouragement with each entree.
This stereotypical "Mel's Diner" is the setting for a Eucharistic feast, where paying customers eat alongside the city's poor, where homeless white guys make small talk with outgoing Samoan teenagers.
The welcome table is so generously spread that even an unsuspecting first-timer could not overlook Christ's abiding presence.
In a city full of would-be millionaires, the bright casino lights cast a wide shadow of poverty and despair. That's why, five months ago, church members acted upon their passion for mission and opened a restaurant that would serve the city's poor as well as the area's growing Samoan population.
The result is a multicultural smorgasbord where patrons can choose from menu items as diverse as hamburgers, raw fish, chili fries and taro leaf.
"It did not happen by accident," says the Rev. Fred Moenoa, the church's pastor. "This restaurant is an expression of our mission statement, which includes a commitment to go out of our way to better someone's physical life." The Turning Point Café is aptly named.
Located on the first floor of a low-income apartment building containing 60 tiny units, the café is friendly turf for those with little or no money. One menu item, a "perpetual hot bowl of soup," is offered free to anyone who needs food. Credit is routinely extended to those who need extra time to pay their tabs.
The café is also a home for the city's 12-step recovery community. Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held virtually non-stop in an adjacent meeting room, meaning that hundreds more are able to benefit from the church's hospitality.
"In Las Vegas, there is a lot of hopelessness and despair," says Leo Asta, a regular customer. "But this church has shown us another way. These people express love in everything that they do. Their actions say more than words can express."
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the restaurant is staffed completely by church volunteers. Youth donate their time on the weekends. All revenue is reinvested in the restaurant and within the Samoan community. "We are not here to make money but to meet the needs of the people," Moenoa says.
Organized in 1994, the church—like the restaurant— has become a center for Samoan culture and community. Its membership has grown rapidly. In the past year, 20 new members have increased the congregation's number to 123. They share worship space with the members of First Congregational UCC.
Over the past seven years, the church has offered mortgage advice and down-payment assistance to 12 church families and five non-church families in the Samoan community in order to make home ownership a reality.
The number of American Samoans living on the U.S. mainland now surpasses the number who live on the Pacific islands themselves. Since the Congregational Church in Samoa is a prominent faith tradition there, the result has been a steady increase in new Samoan UCC congregations.
"Everybody here is wonderful," says Lau Poutasi, a high school sophomore and a member of the church. "Whether I come to the restaurant or the church, I know that we will all be together."
She says the restaurant is a place where people are afforded dignity. "Everybody here treats everybody the way they want to be treated. As time goes on, people learn to love each other no matter what," she says.
Despite their unified enthusiasm, church members are deeply concerned about the restaurant's future. The building's owner recently made known his intention to sell the property—leaving the fate of the church's ministry in limbo.
"He is a motivated seller," the pastor says. "We must find some way to buy this building, but we don't have that kind of money."
Staff members from the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries and Local Church Ministries, as well as the Southern California-Nevada Conference, are offering business advice and spiritual encouragement. All are praying for a positive outcome.
"It is clear that God is in charge of this operation," Moenoa says.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, Minister for Communication and Mission Education with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, stopped by the Turning Point Café for some New Zealand corned beef in late January.